Scent memories

Woman holding bottle of perfume.

What are my earliest memories of perfume? Most of them are ugly.

I am 14 years old, sitting behind an elderly couple at church. A dense cloud of scent stings my nose and makes we want to cough. A heavy, complex floral musk. There’s nothing I can do but sit and endure. Escape when I can. Perfume is a thing that touches me without my consent.

I am 10. I am snooping in my grandmother’s bedroom. I am curious but I know it’s wrong to be there without permission. One by one, I uncap and sniff the perfume bottles on her dresser. Powdery smells, mixed with an ambient medical tang. My heart races and I flee the room, queasy with guilt.

I am 17 years old, settled into my accustomed seat in Advanced English. A girl seated near me loves Bath and Bodyworks lotions. Cucumber melon. Something with sweet raspberries. At first I adore the scent and feel envious of the little luxury she enjoys. As the days pass, the scent loses its charm. The girl and I are now friends so I don’t tell her I find the scent unpleasant. When she pulls a bottle of lotion out of her bag and offers me some, I accept. Scent is a thing I do to please others.

I am 21 years old at my first “grown up” job. The office discourages wearing fragrances. If there is someone in your work area who is sensitive to scents, others are discouraged from wearing them. I learn that abstaining from perfume is a sign of professional courtesy.

Over and over I’ve learned that perfume is offensive to myself and others. Practically a sin to wear.

So how is it that now, deep into my 30s, I’ve suddenly fallen off the deep end with perfume?

How did I stop thinking of it as a social evil and start thinking of it as a personal treat?

It took a pandemic. Lots of time at home alone and a strong desire to indulge in a “frivolous” pleasure to lift my spirits. No one else to consider or to bother. I stopped thinking about wearing perfume as a something done in relation to other people. I began to understand it as a simple sensory experience, just for myself.


  1. I tend to enjoy a lot of beauty youtube content and I have been rather fascinated by folks stating that they rarely use their perfumes anymore because they are out and about. I actually enjoy mine more because I’ve been home a lot! I don’t have to think about how strong one I choose is, or if it’ll not work for someone in the office, or whatever. I just get to enjoy it for me. (In my 40s and only got in to perfumes in my 40s. I think prior to that my sense of smell has been just too strong to be capable of enjoying them.)

    • Exactly! It never occurred to me before that perfume could be something I wore just to please myself. I responded to a survey recently asking about peoples perfume use habits during the pandemic. And based on the questions they were asking in the survey it sounds like you and I are not alone in actually wearing more perfume rather than less during this time. Sounds like it has actually been kind of a mini trend.

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